Ted Scheu (“That Poetry Guy”) is a 3rd-4th grader at heart. Ted's work has appeared in about a dozen anthologies in the US and UK. He is a former teacher living in Vermont, who works full-time visiting schools and writing hilarious poetry.
Ted says, " I have the best of both worlds. I get to 'field test' my poems with elementary school kids all over the world, but, most satisfying of all, I get to work in K-6 classrooms in workshop settings, helping young writers find their own voices through the magic of poetry."
Rose DesRochers: Mr. Scheu, thank you very much for agreeing to this interview with me.
Ted Scheu: My pleasure.
What first got you interested in poetry?
I got a wonderfully healthy dose of A.A. Milne, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Dr. Seuss as a kid, mostly from my mom, who first immersed me in the music of words. Next, I was captivated by the rhythms and the witty word play (not to mention the bouncy melodies) in musical theater. I have early memories of visits to Broadway with my family and being absolutely glued to my seat.
I continued to dabble in light verse throughout a roller-coaster professional life, including writing retirement poems for Navy, banking, and advertising colleagues, and I even turned the Bank of Boston on its ear one fall when I took the songs and 'book' of the musical My Fair Lady and rewrote new lyrics to help sell bank services. We cast the musical with the few theatrically-talented and enthusiastic bankers we could dig up and took the show on the road to conferences of staid banker types.
I got seriously into writing verse for children when, as an elementary teacher in Vermont, I was reintroduced to the current kid-poetry stars – including Shel Silverstein and Jack Prelutsky, who hadn't been around in my youth. I started writing during my summers, and the voice that bounced out of me was, not surprisingly, the voice of me as a kid.
Now Ted, I read you were a teacher. What made you give up your teaching career?
I was literally too exhausted after each school year, and too busy with summer courses, to get my creative juices fully flowing in the summer break, before I had to start getting focused on starting back to school. So in 1998, I talked my saintly wife Robin into letting me take an unpaid leave of absence from my teaching for one year to get the writing bug out of my system.
I was expecting to write a kid's novel, but as I wrote, the words rolled out as poems instead. The questioning, slightly irreverent voice I wished I'd had as a kid came roaring out in verse. I immediately knew a year wasn't going to be enough, so I luckily found a local friend and well-known children's author — Peter Lourie — who helped me develop a school program that combined my love of writing with my love of teaching.
Now I have the best of both worlds. I get to 'field test' my poems with elementary school kids all over the world, but, most satisfying of all, I get to work in K-6 classrooms in workshop settings, helping young writers find their own voices through the magic of poetry. And no report cards to write!
Why did you choose to write poetry for children?
It chose me. All that early exposure to rhythm and rhyme made it impossible for me to write any other genre. I think in rhythm and rhyme all the time. It's sublime. Although it wears a bit thin with my family sometimes. I am working on several picture books and chapter books, so I'm breaking out. I'm even writing more and more emotionally-focused free verse poetry for kids. It seems to be more hard-edged and honest than the rhythmic stuff.
Where do your ideas for children’s poems come from?
My ideas come in equal parts from my memories of my childhood, and from my experiences as a classroom teacher. As you might expect, I pick up a lot of ideas from the 50 or so visits to schools that I make each year. Over lunch, the kids and I discuss things that bug us, and silly things that happen in our lives as kids. In every respect except age, I am a 3rd-4th grader at heart. That's a challenge for my family!
How many books has your work appeared in?
My work has appeared in about a dozen anthologies in the US and UK. I won a national contest for new poets in 2002, and have a poem in "I Invited a Dragon to Dinner" from Philomel, New York, that celebrates that contest. The other US anthologies are from Meadowbrook Press.
Funnily enough, I'm more published in the UK, where they seem to celebrate children's poetry more than we do in the US. Poetry is also a bit edgier and saltier in the UK. Just this month I published my first solo collection–a collection a humorous, cheeky family poems called, I Froze My Mother and Other Seriously Funny Family Poems. It's published by Trafford Publishing of Canada.
Do you have any suggestions for those who may be considering a career as a children’s author?
This is standard wisdom, but it's so true: I suggest that one read every children's book you can, several times – the good ones and the bad. Then, when it comes to writing, write every day. Listen to kids, listen to your own child-heart, and write. Join a writing group. And don't be depressed by all the early rejection letters. The children's book trade has never been more competitive. But you can persevere and succeed. I'm still in the very early stages myself.
Who is your favorite children’s author and what would you say was the best children’s book you ever read?
My favorite author, hands down, is Roald Dahl. I was, and still am electrified by his irreverent, honest voice and his eccentric characters, his clear prose, and hilarious poetry. It's a tie between The Witches and Danny the Champion of the World, by Dahl.
What is next for your fans?
More poems — both rhyming and not — but always with the same questioning, cheeky voice. And, I hope, many picture and chapter books down the road. I'm working currently on a book that deals humorously with the most dreaded of all kid-chores – the thank you note. Aaaaah!
Describe an average day in the life of Ted Scheu.
I try to write most mornings when I am home for at least two to three quiet hours – it comes to 1-3 poem drafts a day. Then I spend the afternoons with school program marketing and correspondence, submissions, and taking care of my overgrown lawn and peeling paint and family. I love to start each day with a short, intense bike ride or walk.
When I'm on the road, I'm in schools about 100 days a year, usually in solid blocks in the spring and fall. Those days I throw myself totally into each school visit, giving so much energy that I just collapse in a hotel room each night.
How much time do you devote to writing funny children’s poetry?
Not nearly enough. I'd love to find a 'patron of the arts' who could fund me to write for five straight years. I'd dedicate all my books to them – like Michelangelo did with the Medicis. I have literally hundreds of ideas and unwritten poems I need to get to, but I also need to pay the bills.
What suggestion would you have for parents, to get children more excited about poetry?
The greatest gift you can give a kid is to read a poem or six to them every night, so they are slowly and surely immersed in the power and music of the words. That magic and power will slowly and surely start to appear in their own writing. Buy them poetry books. I have some on my web site at www.poetryguy.com!
How did you get your nic name Ted Scheu (That Poetry Guy)?
A first grade girl gave me that fun label a few years ago. We were laughing and complaining about how many of us have inherited unpronounceable last and first names, and this lovely little urchin said, 'We'll call you Ted Scheu, that Poetry Guy, just like Bill Nye the Science Guy on TV.' So it stuck! It helps a lot.
Ted, did you marry Nancy Cristman?
This is the question I'm asked the most, by 1st, 2nd and 3rd graders especially. For those who are reading this and wondering, I'll put the text of this very popular poem (and my personal favorite) below. No, I didn't marry her. Sadly, Nancy never heard the poem. I moved away from my home town of Old Greenwich, Connecticut after 6th grade, and never saw Nancy again after that. Nancy's sister and mine were good friends, and have kept in touch over the years.
I learned, to my profound sadness, that Nancy died of cancer about 15 years ago. I like to think that she giggles somewhere every time I recite it. Kids love the story behind the poem, not just for the sad after-story, but mostly because the poem recalls a profoundly important and true event in my life.
Before we go could you read us one of your poems?
Here's "Nancy Cristman Kissed Me":
- Nancy Cristman kissed me
as we walked to school today.
It happened fast, and I was lost
with what to do or say.
I quickly looked around to check
if anyone had seen it.
If they did, and tease me,
they’ll be sorry, and I mean it.
Why did Nancy Cristman put
that smack upon my cheek?
I’m so confused, and probably
will stay this way all week.
I’ll guess I’ll have to marry her,
and share my lemonade.
A lot can happen to a kid
who walks to second grade.
How can teachers contact you for a school visit?
I'd love to hear from teachers or cultural arts committees. They can e-mail me at email@example.com or at firstname.lastname@example.org and they can find a lot of information (and giggles) on my website at www.poetryguy.com. I have a short 8-minute video, and other information, as well as complimentary audio recording that I'd love to send, along with references.
I'm proud of having nothing but completely delighted schools over the past six years of doing school programs. I'm not just 'another visiting author,' but I both entertain and teach, with teaching being my main focus. I reinforce what teachers are saying about writing with power, creativity, and voice, and, of course, I stress revision – finding just the right words to say what we want with open hearts. I make writing and poetry fun, and I will travel anywhere!